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Top Trail Running Tips for Beginners

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Take On the Trails

Whether you need a break from your usual route or just want to get outside more, trail running is becoming the latest craze to lace up to. According the Special Report on Trail Running 2010 by the Outdoor Foundation in partnership with Montrail, trail running attracted 4.8 million participants in 2009, and the numbers have only increased since. And more than 82 percent of trail runners were roadrunners looking for a new scene.

"Trail running is much more engaging than going for a run on the road," says Stephen Hatfield, REI outdoor programs and outreach manager in Portland, Oregon. "You have a limited corridor so you constantly have to sense what is around the corner and make sure you are fully engaged in what you're doing, as opposed to mentally checking out on a run around the block."

Before you head out for your first trail run, check out this must-know info.

Beginner Basics

Before you tackle the trails, newbie trail runners should have a good pair of shoes. "You don't need to buy a pair of specialized trail running shoes," Hatfield says. "The key is to get a pair of sneakers that are supportive, flexible, and have good traction and tread for trails. If they also double as your running sneakers, that's perfectly fine."

Once you've got the proper footwear, Hatfield says to start slow. Start mixing in one run a week on the trail into your normal routine and build up your mileage each week. Try moderate terrain first and practice your focus. Though it might be tempting, resist taking in the scenery — instead, pay attention to where you're planting your feet to avoid a nasty fall.

Stay Safe

"It's always a good idea to let someone know where you are going and how long you plan to be out for," says Hatfield. In addition, make sure you carry your ID, a map, and your phone in case you land in an area where you may have cell phone service and need help. If you're running toward the end of the day, pack a headlamp. If you happen to take a wrong turn on the trail and it gets dark too quickly, you'll be glad you came prepared.

What to Wear

As with road running, outfit yourself for whatever weather you'll be trekking in, says Hatfield. More than anything, you are dressing for the elements. For hot days, a pair of synthetic shorts and a sweat-wicking T-shirt will keep you cool. If you're in the woods you may not have to worry about the sun, but for any open areas make sure to bring a hat with you. For cooler weather, invest in an ultra light shell, glove liners, and a lightweight cap to help protect you from wind and give you some added warmth.

Aside from comfortable clothing, your must-have accessory for any runs over 45 minutes should be water, Hatfield says. If you know you're going to be out for a few hours grab some energy bars, too.

Training for a Trail Race

With mud runs and Spartan Races peaking in popularity, trail running is becoming an important part of training for these races. Don't panic if you don't live near any trails — just get creative.

"Scout out some roads or paved paths where you can do some hill training," says Hatfield. "That is going to help you develop those secondary leg muscles that you use with trail running." At the bare minimum, get off a paved surface, Hatfield recommends. "This will help you engage your stabilizing muscles in your lower legs, feet, hips, and ankles which is crucial to handle trails. "If you're looking to build up confidence first before you head outside, run on the treadmill on an incline.

Finally, as with all training plans: Don't skimp on the cross training. "There have been tons of studies recently showing that dynamic stretches like walking lunges and butt-kicks are more effective than static stretches before running," Hatfield says. "Static stretching is what you want to do post-run to recover faster." To cross train and stretch at the same time, consider taking up a weekly yoga class to work on strengthening and stretching your muscles.

Originally published on, May 2013.